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Our Lady of the Prairie

Review

Our Lady of the Prairie

Back when Thisbe Nissen published her widely acclaimed short story collection, OUT OF THE GIRLS’ ROOM AND INTO THE NIGHT, as well as her debut novel, THE GOOD PEOPLE OF NEW YORK, it was the late 1990s and early 2000s, and she was a young, up-and-coming writer. However, it has been 14 years since the publication of her last novel, so it should be no great surprise to her fans that her new book, OUR LADY OF THE PRAIRIE, is --- despite its unconventional characters and inventive structure --- firmly about middle age, about what happens when a comfortable, or at least predictable, life is upended entirely.

"Nissen’s energetic prose and complex characters ensure that OUR LADY OF THE PRAIRIE will hold up to rereading, even if we have to wait another decade-plus for her next novel."

The book is set in the Midwest, in an Iowa university town that bears a strong resemblance to Iowa City (where Nissen is no stranger, having taught for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). In a scene that actually is not as outlandish as it might seem and that encapsulates the novel’s themes, a tornado strikes just as the protagonist’s daughter, Ginny, is about to get married. The entire bridal party heads to the church basement, and it’s hard to tell which is the more fraught situation --- the maelstrom whirling outside, or the tension building between the main character, Phillipa Maakestad, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Michael. Having just come home after embarking on a three-week whirlwind affair with Lucius, a historian she met during a summer residency, Phillipa has confessed her infidelity to Michael, who promptly took out his frustrations by spanking her. Tired and sore, longing mainly to escape Iowa and return to the arms of her lover, Phillipa feels estranged from the life she once knew.

Phillipa is terrified to tell Ginny about her new love affair. After years of mental illness, eating disorders, drug abuse and a suicide attempt, electroshock therapy and a cocktail of pharmaceuticals finally seem to have gotten Ginny to a stable place. She has fallen in love with Silas, who has abandoned the Amish community in which he was raised, and has surrounded herself with good friends, including Silas’ sister, Eula, and her baby, as well as two people from Narcotics Anonymous. Ginny’s stability is fragile, Phillipa knows, but she feels compelled to pursue Lucius regardless, and soon finds herself ensconced at a cheap motel in a nearby town while she and Lucius --- both professors at different universities and still years away from retirement --- try to figure out how they can be together.

Meanwhile, Phillipa’s mother-in-law, Bernadette, who she has never met, passes away suddenly. In a remarkable chapter at the novel’s center, Phillipa imagines Bernadette’s childhood and youth in Europe during World War II, a personal history about which Bernadette has always been maddeningly reticent or inconsistent. Of course, Bernadette’s imagined story of reinvention and rebellion finds parallels in Phillipa’s own, and she finds herself approaching something resembling a kind of kinship she never would have thought possible.

Nazi collaborators, Amish defectors, mysterious barflys and the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential campaign all collide in Nissen’s marvelously inventive novel. Phillipa’s story is messy, and her choices are often suspect --- readers who like their protagonists to be likable or sympathetic will find themselves frustrated here --- but overall the narrative is full of heart and hope, about embracing differences and eschewing premature judgments, about (as Lucius suggests) finding the strength and singlemindedness to “try and be okay with the okayness of this time.”

Nissen’s energetic prose and complex characters ensure that OUR LADY OF THE PRAIRIE will hold up to rereading, even if we have to wait another decade-plus for her next novel.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on February 2, 2018

Our Lady of the Prairie
by Thisbe Nissen

  • Publication Date: January 23, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 1328662071
  • ISBN-13: 9781328662071